Tristan and Isolde; The White Countess

 Tristan and Isolde

This film takes us back into pre-Arthurian times and legends. Like the recent King Arthur, the film-makers have opted for a rather serious and sombre presentation, a darker (grey and blue) palette for the film and lonely and sometimes eerie landscapes as the backdrop for this tragic love story.

The setting is the southwest kingdoms of Britain after the withdrawal of the Romans - the Dark Ages. The tribes are disunited and cannot prevail against the prosperous and warlike Irish. Young Tristan's father is killed in an Irish attack but Tristan's life is saved by King Mark who regards him as his own son. Tristan grows up to be the champion but is wounded in another Irish onslaught. He receives a Viking style send-off, lying in state on a burning boat. But, he has been poisoned and is not dead.

He is washed up on the Irish shore and found by the king's daughter, who nurses him back to health. Isolde has been betrothed to a warrior. Unfortunately, she does not tell Tristan her real name, so that when Irish and Britons agree to a tournament to win the princess's hand, Tristan aims to win her as a bride for King Mark.

Guess the rest! And that's what happens (like Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot all over again - well not quite because historically, this story precedes Camelot).

James Franco did a great award-wining performance on television as James Dean and is the brooding friend of Peter Parker (alias Spiderman). Brooding seems to be his forte, which means that his Tristan is soulful at best rather than heroic. Sophia Myles as Isolde has much more go in her. But it is the supporting cast who really carry the drama: Rufus Sewell very sympathetic as the decent King Mark, Mark Strong absolutely dastardly as the cowardly villain, David O'Hara as the plotting and conquering Irish king.

The director is Kevin Reynolds who has a strange filmography, especially his matinee-like adventures Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, Waterworld, The Count of Monte Cristo and the very silly Rapa Nui. In his defence, he made the frighteningly thoughtful story of problems in US schools, 187. His adventures seem sometimes anachronistic (American accents in Sherwood Forest). Isolde is able to quote the poems of John Donne a millennium before they were written. But, they do elevate the dialogue.

The White Countess

This is the last of the Merchant Ivory films. Producer Ismail Merchant died in 2005. While he and James Ivory began making films together in India in the 1960s and have a strong list of productions, it was only in the 1970s that they began to tackle literary classics (Henry James. The Europeans in 1979). With their version of EM Forster's A Room With a View, they found themselves popular and award-nominated and winning. They filmed Henry James (The Bostonians, The Golden Bowl). They filmed more Forster (Maurice, Howard's End) and an assortment of period pieces like Jefferson in Paris and Surviving Picasso, peaking in 2002-2003 with Howard's End and Remains of the Day.

As time went on, they began to get negative reviews for their meticulous attention to detail which was sometimes dismissed as pedantic and stultifying, too dignified and holding back the dramatic impact of the plot. Be that as it may, they produced a body of significant and impressive films.

The White Countess was written by Japanese/English author, Kazuo Ishiguro who wrote the novel, Remains of the Day. It has an elegant cast, takes its audience back into a somewhat exotic world (Shanghai in the late 1930s) and relishes its production and costume design. It moves at a generally sedate pace (sometimes slower) that is not in favour these days. It asks for a contemplation of its characters and their plight rather than hurrying with them through action.

Thinking back on the plot, it is really Remains of the Day transferred to China. The period is the same. War looms - which some anticipate and others deny. At the centre are faded and fading aristocracy - this time refugees from the Russian Revolution who have been stranded for two decades in Asian poverty and nostalgia for their former status and its trimmings. There is an outsider who acts as a catalyst for change when the war breaks out.

Natasha Richardson is Sofia, the White Countess of the title - although expatriate American diplomat, now blind and stranded, opens a club which in her honour he calls the White Countess. Sofia works as a hostess (a euphemistic term) at a club, encouraging clients to buy dances and drinks. She supports her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, uncle and aunt who live in faded gentility. She also has a daughter whom the family want to protect from Sofia's way of life while still depending on her. The American (Ralph Fiennes) can possibly offer her a new life.

Then the Japanese invade and there is a rush to get to Hong Kong and Macau.

Natasha Richardson has a dignified bearing as she works and suffers. Ralph Fiennes does an interesting variation on his dignified gentlemen. The aunts are portrayed by Vanessa (Natasha Richardson's real mother) and Lynn Redgrave. Madeline Potter is particularly persuasive as the narrow-minded sister-in-law.

Hiroyuki Sanada is impressive as a sinisterly genial Japanese businessman who believes in his country's ambitions.

The music soundtrack reminds us of Shanghai at this time as cosmopolitan: selections from classics, from local music and the jazz and songs of the 30s US - the film finishing with the junk sailing out to freedom (we hope) to the strains of 'After You've Gone'.

LONDON - 28 April 2006 - 950 words

Share this story